Moving explosive detectors ‘inline’ and making the process of baggage screening more efficient are just part of efforts to tighten US airport security

US airport security has undergone many improvements in the four years since 9/11 when just 5% of checked baggage underwent screening, but the task of securing the nation’s airports is by no means complete. With the Congressional mandate to screen 100% of luggage satisfied, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is focusing on enhancing existing airport screening procedures to make them more efficient, and developing advanced technologies that are capable of detecting different types of threats.

In charge of developing these security enhancements, TSA chief technology officer Clifford Wilke says numerous new airport screening techniques are being pilot tested and developed, but cautions that there is no “one-size-fits-all solution”. One of the TSA’s ongoing challenges is to move the existing SUV-sized explosives detection system (EDS) machines out of the airport lobby and behind the ticket counter, or “inline”, to make the system more efficient.

The TSA describes the lobby-based EDS machines, developed by GE/Invision and L-3 Communications, as “an interim measure” that was swiftly put in place to meet Congress’s deadline of screening all checked baggage by the end of 2002. As a longer-term measure designed to speed up the baggage screening process, the machines are being installed over conveyor belts behind the ticket counter.

Getting inline

However, just 19 of the 450 commercial US airports for which the TSA is responsible have a fully operational inline EDS system, with 12 additional installations either in the construction or planning stages. Wilke says it is “not feasible” to implement inline EDS at all 450 airports. “We need to look at where the greatest risk lies and deploy resources accordingly.”

Moving existing GE/Invision and L-3 Communications EDS machines behind the ticket counter is not the only way of installing inline EDS in airports. Another manufacturer, Bedford, Massachusetts-based Reveal Imaging Technologies, has developed an EDS machine that is considerably smaller and less expensive than those in use. The CT-80 Inline Station is “much closer in size and flexibility to the machines installed to X-ray hand luggage”, says Reveal’s vice-president of sales, Jim Buckley.

The CT-80 uses computed tomography to detect every explosive required under TSA regulations. “The machine is easily installed, much more mobile, and it plugs into the airport’s everyday power supply,” says Buckley.

However, the CT-80 has one major drawback: it is not as efficient as the models developed by GE/Invision and L-3. All of the inline EDS machines installed in US airports are the traditional versions because they are faster at processing bags than Reveal’s machine, according to the TSA. The CT-80 can process 100 bags an hour, says Buckley, compared with the 300 bags that can be screened by the fully integrated inline GE/Invision and L-3 machines in the same period. However, he points out that the latter two machines process between 150 and 160 bags an hour when deployed in the airport’s main lobby. Reveal is working hard to improve the CT-80’s efficiency, and increasing throughput is a “continuous process”, says Buckley, although it is difficult to predict how long this process will take.

The CT-80 is being pilot tested by the TSA at Gulfport, Mississippi and New York Kennedy, with a third pilot about to begin at New York Newark.

Inline EDS implementation is funded using various methods, some of which use federal funds and some of which fall on the airports’ shoulders, an issue of concern to many airport operators. To date, the TSA has issued eight letters of intent (LoI) to fund 75% of the cost of installing inline EDS at nine airports over several years. These airports are Atlanta, Boston Logan, Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, Las Vegas McCarran, Los Angeles, Ontario in California, Phoenix and Seattle/Tacoma.

Safety investment

The total investment on behalf of the federal government to fund these eight LoIs is $957 million. However, Congress has not authorised any further LoIs for fiscal year 2005 and the TSA is still waiting to hear whether LoI funds will be available for FY2006. Despite this, Wilke insists that the TSA “fully supports President Bush’s budget” and says that “every airport will find a solution that meets their needs”.

But airports do not see it this way. The American Association of Airport Executives’ (AAAE) senior vice-president of transport security policy, Carter Morris, says the consensus among airports is that the government should take full responsibility for funding aviation security. “Most airports see aviation security largely as a national security issue. Airports are eager to make the system more safe and secure, but how that is paid for should largely fall on the federal government,” he says. Morris says some airports, unhappy with the TSA’s lack of progress in installing inline EDS, have funded construction themselves under an “informal understanding” that they would be reimbursed by the government.

Another security project facing implementation delays due to lack of federal funding is the TSA’s new passenger screening programme, Secure Flight. This programme, which replaces the previously planned Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), involves checking passenger name records (PNR) against a US Federal Bureau of Investigation terrorist “no-fly list”.

Secure Flight was to have been implemented in August. However, initial implementation has now been moved back to September, and budget concerns mean the programme may not be fully up and running until at least the end of 2006.

The assistant administrator for the TSA’s transportation threat assessment and credentialing division, Justin Oberman, who leads the Secure Flight programme, says the security agency is “trying to get as many airlines on board with Secure Flight as soon as possible”. But the number of carriers that join the programme depends on securing federal funds.

For Secure Flight to be fully implemented, the US Congress must support President Bush’s FY2006 budget request, which calls for $81 million. However, both the House and Senate bills fall short of this figure, coming in at $66 million and $56 million, respectively. The final amount will be decided in September.

Privacy issues have plagued Secure Flight since its inception. “There are four key privacy principles that guide everything we do,” says Oberman. “First of all, we are only looking for people who present a terrorist threat. Secondly, we will only collect a minimal amount of information from passengers. This will be limited to full names and dates of birth.” The third principle is to discard PNR data “a few days after the passenger’s flight” so it is not kept on record. Finally, any changes or expansions to the programme will be vetted by TSA privacy officers.

The TSA recently came under fire from the US Government Accountability Office for violating the US Privacy Act during tests carried out in November using PNR data. Oberman says the TSA is looking at collecting commercial data for use in Secure Flight, but a decision is not expected until later this year, or early next. Despite its obvious drawbacks, however, Secure Flight will represent a significant improvement in security over CAPPS I, says Oberman. “The programme will use a bigger, more comprehensive watch list, and state-of-the-art technology will reduce the risk of false positives.” He adds that the watch list will no longer be distributed to airlines, putting it under complete government control.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all airport screening duties were assumed by US federal authorities. However, the TSA is now looking at turning this responsibility back over to the private sector, a move that has so far failed to garner much support from airports.

Partnership programme

Last November, airports were formally invited to submit applications to opt out of federal screening and join the TSA’s Screening Partnership Programme (SPP), which uses screening services provided by qualified private companies. But as of February, just one airport, Elko in Nevada, had applied to opt out. Since then, Sioux Falls airport in South Dakota has applied and been approved to join the programme. Five airports that took part in a TSA pilot to test the use of private screeners have also applied and been approved to participate in the SPP.

The TSA says a study carried out by Bearing Point in 2004 showed that private screeners “could provide the same level of security and customer service” as federal employees. But it admits that the number of enquiries from airports has been limited. The AAAE’s Carter Morris says airports are intrigued by the opt-out programme, but many are unhappy with the lack of control they would have in the decision-making process. All contracts with private vendors would be signed and controlled by the TSA, it says. A total of 34 companies have now been approved to offer private screening services.

Amid the TSA’s ongoing security pilot tests, which include walk-through explosives trace detection portals, document scanners and radio-frequency identification access control technologies, Wilke says new technologies are constantly being examined and developed to further improve airport security.

“We are currently looking at new things, such as prosthetic limb screeners, as well as ways to upgrade hand baggage screening so that bottles of liquid can be screened,” he notes. “We must drive forward improvements with a sense of urgency. The enemy constantly changes and adapts and we have to be nimble.”

Source: Flight International